As a culture, we constantly struggle with what we eat. The questions and conundrums are endless. Are we eating too frequently? Too many calories? Too many carbs? Not enough protein? Too much red meat? If the food tastes good, does that mean it’s bad for us? Is there a miracle vegetable or mineral that will help us lose weight while enabling us to eat whatever we want?
Between the questions and resolutions, bad habits and fads, it’s little wonder that we seem unable to eat both happily and healthily.
That’s where the Buddhist concept of mindfulness comes into play. Mindfulness, one definition explains, means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment.” Applied to eating, mindfulness promotes an awareness of every aspect of the experience that in turn promotes healthier and happier eating habits.
How to Eat Mindfully: The Basics
What does a mindful meal look like? Here’s a hint: It isn’t eaten in front of the TV or gobbled down in the car between errands.
Mindfulness relies on a dedication to living in the moment and seeking complete awareness. You can check out this post to really delve into how to practice mindful eating, but here’s the gist of it:
To eat mindfully, we must turn off the TV and put away our smart phones, eschewing activities that encourage mindless eating. We should eat slowly, savoring each bite and examining all the sensory data we receive from our food. What does it look like? Smell like? Taste like? What is its texture? What sounds does it make when it is cooked or consumed?
Once you’ve slowed down and started paying attention to the sensory basics of your meals, it’s time to move deeper into the mindfulness mindset. Today’s Dietician provides a helpful chart, The Mindful Eating Cycle, which illustrates key questions of mindful eating. These crucial what, where and why questions help us to dig to the root of our eating habits, separating true hunger from bad habits.
Learning Hunger Cues
The Mindful Eating Cycle is especially helpful in distinguishing between genuine hunger cues and bad habits. In short, the Cycle asks, why do you eat how much of what you eat when you eat it?
Do you eat because you are hungry? Or do you eat because you are bored, stressed, sad or simply in the presence of a tempting treat? Do you eat what is convenient or what is healthy? Do you know how to tell when you are full?
Don’t feel bad if you’ve answered yes to an of those questions – you’re not alone! The beauty of mindful eating is how once we become aware of our eating patterns and pitfalls, it becomes easier to pinpoint the difference between true hunger and the siren songs of stress, boredom and other temptations.
Breaking Bad Habits
If you confuse hunger with boredom or stress, a good first step would be to pause and seriously consider your feelings and motives when reaching for the pantry or refrigerator door. If you find you’re merely bored or stressed, it can be helpful to have alternatives ready. Keep lists of ways to destress or fill free time on hand. You might be surprised at how many activities those lists have in common.
When it comes to eating to sate hunger, you’ll need to break the speed-eating habit. When we rush through meals, we don’t give our bodies a chance to signal when we are full. We’ve moved on to seconds and thirds before our body has time to tell us that our first helping was more than enough.
Set a timer for 20 minutes and eat in mindfulness mode. Savor each bite. Enjoy identifying every taste, smell and texture. Discuss your meal with your dining companions. If you finish eating before the time is up, stay in your seat. Keep conversation going and enjoy the relational aspects of a shared meal.
When the timer goes off, take the time to evaluate your body’s cues. Are you full or hungry? By waiting 20 minutes from the first bite to the last, your brain has the time it needs to send out signals of fullness.
Mindless eating means eating without a thought to why, when or how much we’re eating. Mindful eating draws our attention to these important distinctions, making it possible to break free of bad habits.
Consumption and Choice
Finally, mindful eating helps us become more aware of what we choose to put on our plate. Are we eating an over-processed simulation of food, or are we eating nutritional, sustainable, natural ingredients? Are our plates filled with over salted, homogenous meals, or are we enjoying the cornucopia of colorful, vibrant flavors — subtle or bold — found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fresh meats and other natural options?
Mindful eating isn’t rocket science. It’s not a fad filled with arbitrary do’s and don’ts. It’s an intentional mindset devoted to awareness of our body’s needs and our food’s qualities. By encouraging us to think about eating, mindfulness enables us to change the way we eat for the better.